Air Force space drone’s secret mission hits one-year mark

One year after the Air Force blasted it into orbit, an experimental robotic space drone continues to circle the Earth.

Its overall mission and payload, however, remain a mystery.

The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle, which looks like a miniature unmanned version of the space shuttle, was launched March 5, 2011, from Cape Canaveral, Fla. At the time, Air Force officials offered few details about the mission, saying that the space plane simply provided a way to test new technologies in space, such as satellite sensors and other components.

It was slated to land 270 days later, in November, on a 15,000-foot airstrip at Vandenberg Air Force Base northwest of Santa Barbara. But the Air Force extended the mission and never announced a new landing date.


The X-37B now orbiting the Earth is the second launched by the military. The first X-37B was launched in April 2010 and landed 224 days later on its own -- fully automated -- at Vandenberg.

Some industry analysts have theorized that because of its clandestine nature, the X-37B could be a precursor to an orbiting weapon, capable of dropping bombs or disabling foreign satellites as it circles the globe. The Pentagon has repeatedly said that the space plane is simply a “test bed” for other technologies.

Both X-37Bs were built in tight secrecy byBoeing Co.'s Space and Intelligence Systems unit in Huntington Beach. Engineering work was done at the company’s facilities in Huntington Beach and Seal Beach. Other components were made at its satellite-making plant in El Segundo.


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